Strangers or friends?

Bringing a spiritual perspective to daily life

I have a friend from Louisiana. She came North to my large metropolis for a visit and was not fazed at all by my stiff interpretation of big-city protocol. This is a form of behavior that keeps a non-intrusive distance from neighbors, reacts with restraint upon seeing famous people about their daily business, and averts all eye contact in crowded settings.

On subways, elevators, grocery stores, she would touch people on the arm or hand and ask directions, talk about her day, comment on their pets, purchases, or children. She would tell me the entire history of a family from her area while whipping up a batch of praline candy. I couldn't imagine how to tell her to be different, more restrained. I didn't think she understood that city dwellers adopted this stance for a purpose: safety, security, a certain element of invisibility.

When she wanted to just drop in on a friend and take me along, I said I'd be happy to take her but would wait in the car so as not to impose myself on their visit. "I don't know her," I whined. My guest would have none of it. "Honey," she said in her delicious Southern drawl, "there are no strangers, just friends you haven't met yet." She said "frie-ends" in two syllables.

She exemplified for me what I feel Christ Jesus meant when he said: "This is what God does. He gives his best - the sun to warm and the rain to nourish - to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I am saying is, Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you" (Matt. 5:45-48, Eugene H. Peterson translation).

When my friend went back home to the South, I noticed how much colder the North seemed without her. Yes, I missed the sweetness of her pralines, but it was a sweetness of character I wanted to bring back, too. "There are no strangers ... " ran through my thought, and I began to pray about ways to break the traditional mold I'd always known. Day by day, I tried to reach out to "frie-ends" I hadn't met yet.

The last verse of a hymn helped me to define my mission. The words were written by Mary Baker Eddy, who founded this newspaper. The verse begins, "My prayer, some daily good to do/ To Thine for Thee ...."

So I knew this was not a once-a-month do-a-good-deed deal. Each day, in thought or deed, I would look for an opportunity to express an appreciative, loving quality, dedicating my action to God, not to my personal attachments or convenience. The hymn ends with these words: "An offering pure of Love, whereto/ God leadeth me" ("Christian Science Hymnal," No. 254).

Here, then, was the coda to this sweet daily purpose. The offering needed to be: (1) pure, without personal agenda;

(2) inspired by prayer, spiritual intuition.

Knowing that my action was directed by God, I would be guided in every way to make friends out of strangers.

I had an opportunity to put this into practice in the middle of a busy lunch hour at a restaurant. Our waitress was looking harried. A long time after we ordered, she came with our lunch and served us something we hadn't ordered. She took it back and disappeared into the kitchen. Four ladies at a nearby table were so loud in their displeasure at the service, I heard that they didn't intend to leave a tip. After another long wait, our lunches arrived. Wearily, our waitress cleaned the four ladies' table.

When it was time to pay, I put my arm around the waitress. Pressing enough money into her hand to cover our tip, and hopefully the other table's, I whispered conspiratorially, "It's only lunch. You are worth more than any amount of money. Never forget it." She looked at me as if I'd given her a gift. What had probably felt like a bad day may have lifted from her shoulders. A stranger became a friend that day.

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